What Has Canterbury to Do with Mecca?


In 2006 Anne Holmes Redding converted to Islam, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that she’s also an Episcopal priest at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedra in Seattle, Washington. Of her conversion, Redding said, “I am both Muslim and Christian. I’m 100 percent both.” According to her diocesan newsletter, her bishop, Vincent Warner, "accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting." The diocese of Rhode Island, which ordained Redding, begged to differ and suspended her for one year’s period of time, during which she was supposed to "reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith."

This weird little story suggests why the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) is on the verge of schism with the larger Anglican communion. But it also suggests problems with liberal denomination’s insouciance toward doctrine. After all, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out:

As a matter of simple logic, the idea that Redding could be both Christian and Muslim is untenable. Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has described the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity as “the central Christian doctrine.” And Frank Spina, an Episcopal priest and professor of Old Testament and biblical theology at Seattle Pacific University, was correct when he told the Seattle Times in response to Redding’s conversion: “The essence of Christianity was not that Jesus was a great rabbi or even a great prophet, but that he is the very incarnation of the God that created the world. . . . Christianity stands or falls on who Jesus is.”

On the other hand, the idea that Jesus is not divine is equally central to Islam. The Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the direct word of God, denies Jesus’ divinity multiple times. Sura 4:171 warns People of the Book (Christians and Jews) to “believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not ‘Three’—Cease! (it is) better for you!—Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son.” Going beyond that, Sura 5:17 declares that “they indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.” And Sura 5:73 denounces adherence to the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a form of disbelief.

This conflicting view of Jesus’ divinity is all one needs to know to understand that it is impossible to be Christian and Muslim at the same time. This doctrinal difference is anything but incidental: It goes to the two faiths’ very conceptions of the deity. A necessary part of being Christian is accepting that Jesus was divine. This is enshrined in the catechism of the Episcopal Church, which teaches that God the Son is part of the Holy Trinity. Likewise, a necessary part of being Muslim is denying Jesus’ divinity: The idea that Christ was God violates the tenet of tawhid (the oneness of God) that is central to both the Qur’an and Muhammad’s teachings.

Not only does liberal denomination’s insouciance result in incoherence, it also harms the interfaith dialogue such an insouciance is supposed to promote. Gartenstein-Ross goes on to write:

A powerful movement within the broader Christian church seemingly believes it polite to water down religious doctrine that may make non-Christians uncomfortable. Indeed, many non-Christians are offended by Christianity’s belief that salvation can be found only in Jesus—thus holding that other religions provide a deficient connection to God.

Some argue that having religious doctrine that is at odds with contemporary thinking hurts the Church. Certainly, the Rt. Rev. Warner’s stance on Redding’s conversion suggests that he favors a path of accommodation on doctrinal issues. Others in the Episcopal Church have shown similar inclinations where Islam is concerned. In a 2003 Christmas sermon, the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., asked a series of rhetorical questions: “And what was God thinking . . . when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the Law to Moses? And what was God thinking . . . when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the sacred Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad? And what was God thinking . . . when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” This was particularly puzzling, since the Rt. Rev. Chane affirmed Jesus as the Son of God in the same breath that he affirmed the sacred nature of the Qur’an, which expressly denies the Holy Trinity.

The question is whether such doctrinal compromise actually creates interfaith opportunities. Not only is this approach unlikely to bolster interfaith activities, but it may actually undermine them. The available evidence suggests that interfaith dialogue is least effective when those engaging in it do not have their feet firmly planted in their own faith traditions. The point of interfaith dialogue is to learn about religions that are foreign to us—and an integral part of accomplishing this is being upfront about theological differences. When a church involved in interfaith dialogue soft-pedals Christian doctrine in the interest of painting a picture that appeals to its dialogue partners, its credibility can be undermined. A couple of years ago, I spoke with a member of a conservative church that had recently begun interfaith dialogue with a mosque. Before that, the mosque had dialogued with a more liberal church. Mosque leaders were pleased to have more conservative dialogue partners: They expressed satisfaction that “now we’ll get to see what Christians really think.”

Unfortunately, at least in some dioceses of the ECUSA, it seems that one can no longer count on bishops and priests to say what Christians really think.

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